Millennium's Deborah Dunsire: Woman of the Year

Apr 01, 2009

A handful of times in the span of a human life, there come moments that illuminate how the world could change. For some, it was Woodstock, or the resignation of Richard Nixon, or, more recently, the fall of the Berlin Wall. For Deborah Dunsire it came in 1990, in South Africa, the country she'd called home for most of her life, when the legendary anti-apartheid fighter Nelson Mandela was liberated after 27 years in prison. Like the rest of the country, Dunsire was transfixed by the broadcast image of the aging but unbowed hero of the country's downtrodden, as he told the throng that had gathered before Cape Town's old City Hall, "We have waited too long for our freedom. We can wait no longer."

"Watching it on TV, you got the sense that nothing was impossible," remembers Dunsire, "That ultimately things can change. There's never a need to accept something as a given."

Don't accept the given. It's an idea that resonates throughout Dunsire's life as well as her career. Born of parents lacking even high school education, Dunsire has used her own learning to traverse the world. She took an insignificant oncology unit at Novartis and built it into one of the company's crown jewels, along the way rewriting the story of cancer care for patients by leading the introduction of such important drugs as Gleevec. As CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, her vision has been a game changer for the company, turning an underperforming biotech into a robust center of oncology excellence by way of a nearly $9 billion acquisition by Takeda.

Dunsire is one of the few female biotech CEOs (and almost certainly the only one who speaks fluent Afrikaans). Part of her success, say those who know her, is that she has always been governed by who she is—a physician who got her start treating the poor in Johannesburg, a mother and wife, and a deeply religious woman as well as a business leader.

"Deborah is warm and caring as well as strong and decisive," says Linda Heath, her executive assistant. "When she speaks, we clearly see that her head is that of a leader and her heart is that of a healer."

Her achievements have earned Dunsire the Healthcare Businesswoman's Association 2009 Woman of the Year Award, a prestigious recognition that has been bestowed on executives such as Charlotte Sibley, Meryl Zausner, and Susan Desmond-Hellman. This year's designation is made even more special given that the WOTY Award—which has helped recognize and advance women's leadership in the industry—is celebrating its 20th anniversary, while Dunsire also celebrates 20 years of career achievement.

Deborah Dunsire started her career by following a simple lesson that has only become more true as the years have passed: "You can't be too sure of the path you're on because you might shut down some side roads that are incredibly important."

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